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It has been more than a century since they took power. They became the gravediggers of a vast empire. Nevertheless, their traces and voices have not diminished. An epic should be written about this success.
27 Eylül 2023 Çarşamba

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, commonly known as the Young Turks) was founded by those who were tired of the strict, traditional, and religious life of Sultan Abdulhamid's era. On one side, they had the support of England and France, while on the other, Germany stood behind them. The rhetoric of freedom, equality, homeland, and nation was popularized. Sultan Abdulhamid's excessive suspicion, which could be justified but even alienated his supporters, strengthened their hand.

The founders of The Committee of Union and Progress
The founders of The Committee of Union and Progress

In 1908, Young Turk officers in Rumelia took to the mountains, claiming that the King of England and the Tsar of Russia had divided Rumelia in Reval, which turned out to be a false alarm as such a matter was not discussed in Reval. They shot their commanders. The revolution grew. On July 23, 1908, the Constitutional Monarchy was declared. The parliament convened, and the Young Turks gained the majority.

A postcard depicting the Constitutional Monarchy of 1908
A postcard depicting the Constitutional Monarchy of 1908

Censorship was lifted, and publications against Sultan Abdulhamid II began. The public mentally prepared for the change in the throne. Journalist Abdullah Cevdet, one of the committee members, said, "I fabricated a hundred lies about Sultan Abdulhamid. I believed one of them too, which was about a War College student having his feet tied with a stone and being thrown into the sea from Sarayburnu."

The coup was pro-German. The British attempted a counter-coup on March 31, 1325 (1909). They failed but got rid of Sultan Abdulhamid, who had been damaging to imperialism with the power of the caliphate. 

The Sultan was dethroned with a forcibly obtained fatwa. An unprecedented tragicomic incident in history: The fatwa was voted on in the parliament. The Sultan was exiled to Thessaloniki with some of his family members. He was imprisoned in a Jewish man's mansion (another tragicomic incident for not granting land to Zionists).

Yıldız Palace was looted. Those living in the Palace were thrown into the streets. This is how they were "liberated." Sultan Mehmed V ascended to the throne, but with all his powers trimmed.

Those who were hanged in the March 31 Incident
Those who were hanged in the March 31 Incident

The Young Turks, like their role models, the Freemasons, had members from all walks of life. They managed to encompass a wide range of individuals,  from atheists like Abdullah Cevdet to Islamists like Akif, from nationalists like Ziya Gökalp to converts (donmeh) like Cavid, from those who drank every night to devout individuals. 

They held their own interpretations of patriotism and honesty. However, what united them all was their commitment to a revolutionary mindset: "I am right, you are wrong!" They silenced their opponents with hired assassins and didn't hesitate to eliminate even their closest relatives. Even the Sultan's brother-in-law was unjustly executed.

The first action of the Young Turks unfolded as follows: Bulgaria declared its independence. Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Italy made an incursion into Libya in 1911. At that time, Prime Minister Hakkı Pasha was playing poker with Italian General Robilan in Istanbul. They managed to resolve the conflicts among the Balkan nations that Sultan Abdulhamid had instigated. However, these Balkan nations eventually united and launched an attack on the Ottoman Empire. 

Despite their unwavering confidence, the Young Turks suffered defeat against the small Balkan states, resulting in the loss of all of Rumelia in 1912. In response, they searched for scapegoats and staged a coup by storming the Sublime Porte (Bâbıâli, a synecdoche for the central government of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul).

The Ottoman Empire entered the Great War to aid its German allies. In an effort to appease the Muslims, a holy jihad fatwa (a legal ruling) was issued, although it wasn't taken seriously. During this time, Cyprus and Egypt were lost, marking one of the greatest calamities in Turkish history. Thousands of soldiers froze to death on the Caucasian front. Enver Pasha, who had risen from the rank of major to general in a single day, celebrated a victory parade in Istanbul, remarking, "Weren't they going to die anyway?" The tragedy of Çanakkale, where hundreds of thousands of educated young men died in vain, is still commemorated as a victory.

The parliament was dissolved, and newspapers faced censorship. The country turned into a de facto German colony, with "Enverland" written in chalk on wagons arriving from Europe. Famine broke out, and while the people were eating bread made from broomcorn seeds, the Young Turks and their sympathizers became wealthy through wagon trading and black-market activities. Bulgur, which was scarce for everyone else, became known as "Enver Pasha rice." The Bolu deputy Habib Bey, who had grown rich through the black market in bulgur, had his mansion named "Bulgur Palace" by the people. Even Tevfik Fikret, who had initially been with the Young Turks, turned away from them, starting his poem with the words "Eat, gentlemen, eat!"

Journalist who lived those days Refik Halid says, "During the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid, it was impossible for a peasant with a secretly brought-in small amount of gold capital, within a few years, to become a merchant so wealthy and influential that ministers would attend his wedding. In other words, it was not possible for someone to become a millionaire and influential as quickly as during these war years. The business world at that time adhered to traditions, and wealth required time. A newly emerging businessman would face great difficulties and would take a long time to develop themselves."

The people began to yearn for the old era they considered oppressive. Life became more liberal. Women started appearing in public. The strict separation of Muslim women from men and their avoidance of sitting together and conversing relaxed. Women-only sections in trams, ferries, restaurants, and theaters were abolished. Those who longed for the past and its restrictions were labeled as "apostates."

The Raid on the Sublime Porte
The Raid on the Sublime Porte

In 1913, about 120,000 Greeks from the Aegean region were forcibly expelled to Greece without any apparent reason. In 1915, nearly a million Armenians were relocated to Syria across the country under the pretext that the Russians might arrive and make them allies. Half of them perished on the way due to hunger, cold, disease, government gangs, and Kurdish bandits. 

By banning the use of Arabic, Arabs were alienated, and Kurds were turned away with the slogan "Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene!" (How happy is the one who says, 'I am a Turk!'). The weapons of the Albanians who were on guard against the Serbs, were confiscated. They all rebelled, and Albania was lost. The Arab uprising could not be quelled, leading to the collapse of Ottoman rule in the Arab territories that had lasted for four centuries. These lands were subsequently occupied by the British and French.

Four Allied Monarchs in the Great War
Four Allied Monarchs in the Great War

Borrowing money from Germany, the Ottoman treasury went bankrupt, and the country suffered defeats on almost every front during the war. Approximately one million people lost their lives, and the country was left in ruins. The leaders of the Young Turks, with the aim of returning and "continuing their service," fled the country. Some young Armenians took revenge by assassinating some of them.

During the rule of the newly established government, the Young Turks were put on trial and convicted. However, the British released them, and they escaped and infiltrated Ankara. They assumed new identities and became involved in almost every conspiracy to maintain their power. The leaders of the Young Turks were declared heroes and buried in martyrs' cemeteries. Since then, the nation has not been able to rid itself of their influence.

Plundering Politicians
The journalist Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar (1864-1944), in his novel “Evlere Şenlik,” had this to say about the Young Turks who, after leading the country to disaster, attempted to return to power as if nothing had happened:  

“Where are you now, you plundering politicians who stole the people’s money with waqf (foundation) certificates (waqfiyyas)? Some of you, with the wealth you amassed from the nation's tears, now have your coffers full, your faces clean, and you've returned from exile like lords. Once again, you've blended into the midst of the Turks whose blood you profited from. 

Your power, your zeal, were not even sufficient to manage a minor office properly, yet each of you had eight or ten large coffers filled with the state's most significant affairs. You turned the world upside down over and over. You oppressed the Turks, and you made them oppress each other. You plundered, and you made them plunder. You hanged, you executed. You exiled, you made them suffer. Now you wander among the oppressed in admiration. 

Tell us, who are the culprits of the bloody era that has passed? Shall we seek them on the ground or in the sky? The magician's wands were in your hands. You were in command of all events. With a gesture from you, blood flowed like a river, and regiments, armies, sank with it.

Traveling around Italy, the Cote d'Azur, and Switzerland was enough for you. Now, go and wander along the borders for a while. See the heaps of martyrs who gave their lives amid desert sandstorms, their blood still running, and their bones frozen in the ice. Explore the ruins and desolation in the heart of the country. If your heart doesn't swell with hatred and curses against yourself again, understand that you are a monster. Be glad that you belong to those who, even when entering hell, would not feel the fire—the numb ones. If a nation, without the means to extinguish even a small fire, plunges into the fire of a world war, this is what happens.

Review your articles and speeches that brought the nation to the stage of world politics as if it were a prisoner. No one will need any interpretation. But at this hour, all of you have neatly prepared congratulatory letters under your chairs. You want to deceive God, the angels, the devils, and people once more."